Parmis Sahrapima, Web Co-Editor-in-Chief
In honor of this year’s Hero Project featuring Nina Revoyr, this review is one in a series.
“Wingshooters” is a novel written by Nina Revoyr depicting the relationship between a nine year old mixed-race girl (Japanese mother, American father) and her white grandfather. As the plot develops, Revoyr portrays the violent and consistent racism that existed in 1974 in the American Midwest through Michelle LeBeau’s eyes. Michelle gets to see first-rate racism not just through the people in her town, but through the grandfather that she loves most.
With Michelle’s father and mother out of the picture, the girl lives with her grandparents in small-town, whiter-than-white Deerhorn, Wisc. Michelle, who is referred to as “Mike” by her grandfather Charlie, has grown accustomed to the verbal and sometimes physical cruelty of other children in 1974 Wisconsin. Telling the tale as a middle-aged woman in 2011, Michelle recounts the events that drew the town’s eyes from her differentness: the arrival of a young black couple, a male schoolteacher and female nurse. Bigoted Charlie frowns on his son’s marriage choice but loves Michelle as his own. But the arrival of the black couple pushes his scant tolerance too far and enrages others in Deerhorn, particularly one of his friends.
The violence and cruelty that Revoyr depicts makes the across-the-board intolerance of the Garretts and the virulent racism seem over the top for 1974 American Midwest. Revoyr simply doesn’t try very hard to show that not everyone has a dark heart. Readers will find themselves continually pondering that there surely must be a few people beside this little girl who see how wrong racism is. Throughout the story, Revoyr successfully fails to satisfy this hope. Revoyr hits the bull’s eye with the grandchild/grandfather relationship. Charlie teaches her to hunt and dotes on her, but he does not see how incongruous it is to adore this girl in her difference but to resent the obviously kind black newcomers.
At first glance, “Wingshooters” appears like another interpretation of the banal plotline in which a young innocent girl comes to learn about race in the U.S. However, unlike the sugary feel-good versions that let white readers always imagine themselves the exception to white supremacist culture, Revoyr’s young narrator, Mike, comes to learn of the power, depth and violence of racism, even in the person who loves her best. Reyvor has created a compelling setting and narrator, and effectively shows the coexistence of the profound racism of Mike’s grandfather and his love for his Japanese-American granddaughter.
Revoyr also shows the tension between Mike’s love for her grandfather and the things she learned from him, and at the same time how deeply damaged she is not just by the violence she experiences and witnesses, but also by the failure of those who love her to understand how their racism, directed towards others, destroys her sense of safety. Revoyr writes with such a genuine voice that will reluctantly draw readers in. It is obvious that the author has experiences that have informed her writing; her descriptions are too vivid to be merely imagination.